When Jessica McClure, an 18-month-old girl in Midland, was stuck in a well for 58 hours in October of 1987, CNN carried most of the rescue effort live. There was an international sigh of relief when a crew of roughnecks and first responders finally brought Baby Jessica to the surface.
“Hong Kong, both English and Chinese language stations, are carrying reports on the girl,” Dan Rather reported. “The south China, mainland China Morning Post, an English newspaper, ran a story that covered almost a quarter of a page we’re told. This story has received display in newspapers in west Germany, The Netherlands, throughout Brazil. It’s a story that has caught on.”
It’s very similar to what we’ve seen from Thailand over the past two-and-a-half weeks as divers rescued a Thai soccer team from a cave.
International media attention is just one of the parallels between Baby Jessica, the Thai soccer team, and other stories of peril that attracted round-the-clock coverage. We saw the same thing with the trapped Chilean miners in 2010. And in 1949.
“At this moment in San Marino, California, rescue workers are still digging feverishly to reach a 3-year-old child trapped in the 14-inch casing of an abandoned well,” KTLA reported. “The little girl’s name is Kathy Fiscus. Yesterday afternoon about 5 she’d been playing with her 9-year-old sister and a cousin in a vacant lot. Suddenly Kathy took a misstep and plunged into the narrow opening of the dry well.”
The rescue effort unfortunately did not succeed, despite responders working over 20 hours to get the girl out of the well. Most of the effort was broadcast over the airwaves of Los Angeles on both radio and television.
Why are we so captivated by stories like this when others in equally dire circumstances don’t get the same attention?
“When humans developed, all of our relationships were face to face. And so simply putting a face or having visual imagery is very human and social. And so it’s not as easy for us to relate to people at a distance and people we don’t have direct exposure to,” says Deborah Small, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Pennsylvania.
There’s a name for this phenomenon – it’s called the identifiable victim effect. The idea is that if you empathize with someone, you’re more likely to care about their story. Which is a lot easier to do if you can put a face to a name. But there’s more.
Charles Ponce de Leon is the author of the book ‘That’s the Way It Is: A History of Television News in America.’
“If it was known they were dead,” he says, “there would have been a lot less coverage. So I think the potential drama of their rescue or demise – that sort of hanging in the balance is what gives this story its legs and its appeal.”
We want a good story. If there’s some drama, some tension, we’ll pay attention if you can give us a beginning, middle, and end.
“You can think of it as kind of a great book or a movie where you want to see it til the end. And you can contrast that to situations like poverty or malnutrition, things that are just chronic,” Deborah Small says. “I mean there’s no beginning, there’s no obvious end.”
And the ending is important in these stories. Not so much the actual outcome itself, but the fact that there will be a conclusion.
“There is a real psychological motivation to complete things,” Small says. “When there’s a tangible, finite set of victims – in this case it was the boys in the cave – it does feel like you can check that box.”
So whether it is 12 boys and a coach in a flooded cave in Thailand, or one baby girl in Midland, we are drawn in by these stories because they satisfy our craving for an ending.